is a ‘Golden Door’
to the film industry.
Pretty odd, since former Trainees have reached the dizzying Hollywood stratosphere – Mark Johnson, producer of The Chronicles of Narnia, whose mantle holds an Oscar (Rain Man) and two Golden Globes (Rain Man, Bugsy); Ralph Singleton, whose producing credits include Clear and Present Danger, Another 48 Hrs, Harlem Nights, and TV’s Cagney & Lacey; and Emmy-winning TV producer Chris Morgan, whose credits of 40+ shows include Police Story, Quincy, Hunter, Dynasty II, Gotta Kick It Up! and Miami Vice.
In Hollywood, when you hear ‘Trainee,’ you’re probably hearing about a person talented (and fortunate) enough to be accepted into the Assistant Directors Training Program. Officially the ‘Directors Guild-Producer Training Plan,’ this rigorous on-the-job program was established in 1965 by the DGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers (‘management’ in Hollywood labor negotiations).
The AD Training Program is recognized as one of the world’s most prestigious training programs – if you ignore the Navy SEALS, Green Berets and Speznatz. Though ‘it’ is actually two programs – Los Angeles (‘Training Plan’) and New York (‘Training Program’), the term ‘Training Program’ is generally applied to either. Often regarded as the toughest non-military program in existence, the unique training programs together have produced over 800 graduates since 1965.
The DGA emphasizes that Trainees aren’t ‘directors in training.’ Though some Trainees eventually become directors, many more become producers. The list of the elite group of graduates includes Duncan Henderson, who navigated Master & Commander to ten nominations and two Academy Awards, after producing Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, The Perfect Storm, Outbreak, Home Alone 2, and Dead Poets Society; Emmy-winner Howard Kazanjian, whose credits include Return of the Jedi and Raiders of the Lost Ark, which took home Oscars in technical categories; Walter Hill, who won an Emmy for Deadwood, and has directed dozens of projects (including 48 Hrs, The Long Riders, The Warriors) and produced many more (including Alien, Alien³, and 83 episodes of Tales from the Crypt).
How do they get there?
The film industry was famously described by Groucho Marx: “Calling it ‘dog-eat-dog’ is an insult to dogs.” So to understand how someone could succeed in a business that insults dogs, we should to start with how that person got there in the first place.
Every year, over a thousand hopefuls discover the Program through college recruitment efforts, magazine or newspaper articles, friends or family, or the internet (one applicant, reading a movie’s credits, searched ‘DGA Trainee’ on IMDb and “went for it”). Eager applicants may have experience in film, but most come from the ranks of ‘ordinary people’: clerks, plumbers, postal workers, former military officers – even a stockbroker and a lawyer or two. Sending their applications to find out if they have ‘the right stuff,’ many of these hopefuls will advance in the process, though a far larger number wind up seeking their fortunes elsewhere.
That four-page application – which asks for five more pages of written commentary on motives and aspirations – is only the beginning. To qualify, applicants must be US citizens or legal residents, possess a high school diploma, and should have a bachelor’s degree (a requirement that might be waived with enough verifiable business or military experience).
The Program’s Trustees look for the top 10% or so to interview, based on applicants’ “demonstrated committed interest in the film and TV industry.” To qualify for interviews, most of the initial applicants are then invited to take ‘The Test,’ a grueling arduosity requiring more than five exhausting hours of focused and applied mental acuity.
The Test is measures general knowledge, mental acuity, and problem solving. General familiarity with history should be sufficient, as is a comfort with mathematical concepts. Communications, vocabulary and semantic concepts are all covered more heavily.
Widely acknowledged as “harder than the LSATs,” The Test is annually administered simultaneously in Chicago and Los Angeles. It’s true that a few people take the test five times or more – some of them advanced after that final time and some didn’t, but passing only guarantees an invitation to submit a second application.
Of the 120 or so people invited to interviews, 90% are weeded out through carefully controlled ‘interrogatories’ that give some applicants panic attacks and reduce others to tears. The interviewers, graduate Trainees and industry professionals, have seen many hundreds of hopefuls and Trainees, and so know what to look for.
A tough room
One of the best scenes in Joe vs the Volcano has Dan Heyada shouting repeatedly into a phone, “I know he can get the job, Harry, but can he do the job?” A few interview questions used to let the admissions committee know how you’d interact with others. Former Trainees tell stories about odd interview questions and how the committee sought candid answers while avoiding rehearsed responses. Today, situational simulations can determine how people react to pressures on movie sets – whether they can do the job.
It isn’t easy to tell who’ll make a good AD, who can master reams of paperwork and a suitcase full of union contracts, with a military mind for the logistics of moving crews safely and efficiently, with a collection of Kissingeresque diplomatic skills. When dealing with the largest egos in the world, one needs several sleevesfuls of tricks. Some people excel on the organizational side, but fall down in logistics. Some shine in logistics, slipping up in the paperwork. Others can do all that, but can’t deal with self-centered stars in the pressure-cooker of a movie set.
The interviewers seek those with ‘the right stuff,’ pointing to a long list of successful directors, assistant directors, production managers and producers – many still have the right stuff today. Though their names are unrecognized by the general public, former Trainees are acknowledged in Hollywood as a breed apart.
In the right place at the right time
Arne Schmidt produced Big Fish, We Were Soldiers, Awakenings, RoboCop, among other large-scale Hollywood projects. During a scout for XXX – State of the Union, Arne told how as a teenager he was washing a neighbor’s car. The guy, impressed with Arne’s work and demeanor, recommended that Arne get an application – which Arne did, leading directly to a successful 30-year career.
Duncan Henderson, a stockbroker before switching careers, says, “I’d never been on a set, never taken a film class, and knew no one in the business. They gave me the opportunity to learn on the job, with some of the most talented people in the motion picture business. Many of my mentors had been Trainees, and they made me realize that ‘all things are possible’ in this business.”
In his long career, Jerry Ziesmer was an AD for almost every top director in Hollywood at the time: Spielberg, Coppola, Huston, Crowe, Bogdanovich, Brest, DePalma, Badham, Rydell, Pollack, Frankenheimer, Stallone, Mel Brooks. An acting student in school, Jerry applied to the program on a whim, later becoming known for his ability to work with demanding top-name directors, covering complicated schedules and logistics (pyrotechnics, thousands of background players, entire foreign military forces, etc).
Ricardo Méndez Matta was a 1st AD before making the jump to directing. Ricardo has directed many TV shows, including The District, Nash Bridges, Touched by an Angel, and Weird Science. The former Trustee Chairman wrote, “When I arrived in Hollywood, I knew no one... and most doors were closed because I was an anonymous outsider from Puerto Rico. The training – plus talent and hard work – can take you a long way. Not just a door to the Entertainment Industry, it’s an express elevator to the top.”
Emmy-winning director Dan Attias, whose credits include most hit TV shows of the last 20 years, also wrote for The Sopranos and produced Party of Five. Dan’s directing credit list includes House MD, Huff, Boston Legal, Lost, Entourage, The OC, CSI: Miami, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, Ally McBeal, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Practice, Party of Five, Lois & Clark, Dr Quinn Medicine Woman, Melrose Place, Beverly Hills 90210, Northern Exposure, 21 Jump Street, and Miami Vice. Intending to become a director before entering the Program, Dan discovered that he’d be saying “Roll Please” for years before he’d ever say “Action,” so he banked his 2nd AD money to take AFI’s directing course.
Don Zepfel, who ran production at Universal Studios, produced Hidalgo, The Mummy Returns, and Dragnet. Zepfel said, “On the job is really the only way to master this very arcane craft, and the Program is the best way to launch a successful career. The base-line of knowledge provided is crucial to being a successful manager in this industry.”
Opening up the Boys’ Club
For 40 years, the Program has provided the entrée to a world formerly closed – especially for minorities and women. In 1965, when the Program was formed, there were few women in the Guild, and minorities had virtually no connections that could be leveraged into a job, much less a career. The need was recognized for a program to help democratize the industry, leveling the playing field for those committed enough to get the job.
In the Program’s first year, there were no female Trainees. The first five classes only saw three women out of 53 Trainees, and two classes had no women at all. The first ten years saw only 13 women out of 110 Trainees. More recently, the average for the last ten years is roughly 50/50, though the 2006 class of 17 Trainees had only four males, and the 2007 class had 5 males and 10 females. The looming WGA strike in late 2007 resulted in a lack of work slots, so there was no 2008 class.
It’s not surprising that more and more women are moving toward production jobs – women tend to have the organizational skills that make them perfect candidates for the positions. In fact, the early history of Hollywood is filled with the names of forgotten women: directors, producers, women capable in business who could go after jobs in a brand-new industry where all the rules hadn’t yet been laid down.
While Hollywood, like other sectors of American business and industry, has lagged in terms of diversity in hiring – especially in executive positions – female former Trainees have fared well in spite of obstacles. Women sit on the boards of all the major guilds, and the DGA elected Martha Coolidge as president in 2002. Many important executive positions are held by women in Hollywood, and the Training Program provides a valuable route for women to enter the business and move up. Once there, they face the same challenges as men do, and they must perform at the same level in order to advance.
Having what it takes
The sure way up the production ladder is to do your job better than almost everybody else around you – top major league batters hit .333, but ADs must to hit in the middle 900s to stay in the game. While errors are tolerated – and you have a team backing you up in tough plays – too many mistakes will still send you out the door, sometimes even before lunch.
New Trainees have the immediate opportunity to serve on one of Hollywood’s ‘big shows,’ landing on a set with virtually no preparation. Introduced to the crew and given specific tasks by the 2nd AD, the Trainee enters the production team, helping to keep the project on-schedule and on-budget, interacting with the crew, keeping tabs on cast members, distributing key paperwork, and logging a production report at day’s end. Toiling on different projects for two years in a continuing ‘boot-camp,’ the Trainee is one of the lowest-paid and least-esteemed members of the crew. Perhaps alleviating those long grueling days is the dream of accepting an Oscar or producing a hit series.
Though the Program focuses on the actual work of production, you might be asked to bring Sharon Stone a perfect cup of tea. You might move a crowd in manufactured rain – 500 or 1,000 background players. You’ll wade through mounds of paperwork and union contracts, and get the chance to learn diplomacy you don’t already know. Pick up the lingo and get used to the punishing schedule, and you’ve become a ‘veteran’ who divides the world into industry people and ‘civilians.’
Join the Guild, and, if you aren’t on Hollywood’s fast track, at least you’re on the track – in the mix, making a good salary, with a comfortable pension and a pretty good indication that, if you play your cards right, you might wind up playing with the top players too: former Trainees are the most-employed Guild members, with the longest and most successful careers. And make no mistake – Hollywood is a growth industry. Stand the heat and you might one day run the kitchen: any of many positions in the seven major ‘kitchens’ (20th Century-Fox, Paramount, Sony Pictures, NBC/Universal, Warner Bros, Buena Vista/Disney, New Line), or scores of jobs in TV divisions and independents.
Today, men and women of the Training Program continue to lead, at every level, all the way to the top of the industry. And that’s how it’s supposed to be.
[> Information on the Directors Guild - Producer Training Plan may be found online at www.trainingplan.org <]
David Hakim is an assistant director, producer, and publicity expert who developed campaigns for every major Hollywood studio and handled publicity for the Motion Picture Academy. Find him in the Reel Directory online: www.reeldirectory.com.
All material copyright 2010 David Hakim and may not be duplicated - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
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